As ice sledge hockey gracefully brings back fans to a simpler, more innocent time, when the skates of frozen gladiators carved the ice for a love of the game, one of the most heartwarming aspects is Tuyet Yurczyszyn’s journey. Born in Vietnam, she was an orphaned girl stricken with polio. With the long lasting effects resulting in the permanent use of a leg brace, her life would take a remarkable turn.
Adopted in 1975 by a Canadian family, Yurczyszyn would grow up in Brantford, Ontario, famous today as the hometown of Wayne Gretzky. In the last few years, the emergance of a remarkable ice sledge hockey program has added a new relevance to the community. Complemented by the southwestern Ontario community of Chatham, male and female athletes have established these areas as hubs for elite ice sledge hockey.
Growing up, hockey was a constant source of enjoyment for Yurczyszyn. A mother of two, the love of sport has been passed to a new generation, as she volunteers with her daughter’s basketball team. A chance encounter led to her introduction to ice sledge hockey. Upon its discovery, it was something that she approached with anticipation and enthusiasm,
“I watched hockey constantly. In the summertime, likely 2012 or 2013, the Crushers held a charity barbecue. Having dropped my son off to football practice, I noticed many disabled people were at the event. I asked about it and people noticed I was wearing a leg brace.
They had asked me what happened and I told them that I once had polio. They invited me to come out in September and I could not wait.”
Although Yurczyszyn was in her thirties when she first attempted ice sledge hockey, the patience and belief shown towards her by coaches and teammates was the foundation for a sport that would become a labor of love. Perhaps her harshest critic, the love of the game was the motivational factor in her perseverance,
“I had tried stand-up hockey but my left leg did not have enough muscle. When I got on the ice for the first time with the sticks in my hands, I could not tell you what it felt like. Even though it was only a practice and I tipped over a lot, to be on the ice was just amazing.
Even though I fell over, I got myself back up and stayed on to push myself. I was surprised how fast some can go in the sled. The first couple of times I was hard on myself, but my coach told me not to worry and that my speed was not bad.”
Taking into account the influence of the Gretzky family in her community, it was not long before Yurczyszyn fell in love with the game. Starting at the club level with the Brant County Crushers, it would be the springboard towards many memorable moments. Through it all, the absorption of her surroundings only enriches the experience,
“Being older than most of the players, I was a late starter. Yet, as a player, to be on that ice and wear a jersey with a number on your back, to know you belong to a team, and to see people in the stands watching me play, it was just unbelievable.
I stared at my surroundings and looked at the people in the stands. Instead of being a volunteer on the bench, I was in the game. There were no words, I just had goosebumps. It reminds me of all the games I had watched. Now I know how a player on the ice must have felt.”
As the proud hockey city of Buffalo, New York hosted the IPC Men’s Ice Sledge Hockey Championships, the women who don the American and Canadian jerseys were also on-hand. With both countries hosting an evaluation camp, an annual three-game exhibition series simultaneously occurred.
For the women of the Canadian contingent, there was an extra feeling of pride. The entire roster had the privilege of donning the official Hockey Canada jerseys with their names and numbers on the back. As the jerseys were distributed among the jubilant players, it led to an outpouring of emotion for an ecstatic Yurczyszyn,
“It was nice to wear that jersey and see my last name on the back, it was a great feeling. When they first gave the jerseys to us, I remember they called my name and I just started bawling. My number was nine and I made everyone else cry.
I could not hold back the tears as it was very emotional for me. Having come to Canada after being at an orphanage in Vietnam 40 years ago, and play on a Canadian national team was surreal.”
Such emotion was the continuation of another momentous occasion for Yurczyszyn and her Canadian teammates. In November 2014, Brampton, Ontario was the setting for the inaugural IPC Ice Sledge Hockey Women’s International Cup. In Canada’s second game, she registered three assists, including the one that saw Danica McPhee score her first-ever goal.
For a longtime hockey fan and sports enthusiast, the chance for Yurczyszyn to represent the country that has meant so much to her was a dream.
“To be at a world championship with different countries competing for a gold medal, it seemed surreal. I could not believe it was really happening. To get to play hockey for a world championship, no words can describe it.
It reminds me of when I was a kid and I wished I could compete. I was overwhelmed and I could feel my heart beating rapidly. Although we did not win the gold, to still be a part of it and contribute to something like this was great. It was an honor and it made me so proud to be a Canadian.
Having watched Olympics, World Juniors and the World Cup, I support any Canadian teams. I now understand how those players felt.”
Women such as Yurczyszyn are helping to capture the consciousness of a nation. An exuberant spirit, her love of Canada is a window into her soul. Her appreciation and eventual participation in hockey would kindle the glorious dreams of sport for other late bloomers and disabled individuals. Establishing herself as a proud patriot, she is also a pioneer who is positively changing the future of sport.
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”